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Deterring Illegal Immigration by Separating Parents and Children

What does fear accomplish?

It’s a question the Trump administration appears to be trying to answer, whether intentionally or not, as it cracks down on illegal immigration.

Just last week, The Washington Post reported that the administration is considering separating parents from their children if they’re caught crossing the border illegally. If implemented, the policy would mark a shift from current policy, which keeps families together. The move has received pushback from immigrant groups who argue it’s cruel, but administration officials see it as a way to discourage Central American migrants from making the journey to the United States following an uptick in family units and unaccompanied children caught at the border. Even if the policy successfully deters economic migrants however, immigrant advocates warn that it will punish the most desperate immigrants—those fleeing violence or persecution—without dissuading them.

The number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped at the start of the Trump presidency, but has since begun to creep up again, according to Customs and Border Protection figures. In March, the Department of Homeland Security reported a 40 percent decline in apprehensions from January to February. Indeed, it appeared the mood had shifted in Central America as Trump took office. In speaking with migrants, advocates, and workers at shelters in the U.S. and Mexico, The New York Times found that people were less likely to make the journey north.

In March, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly attributed the drop in border crossings to the new policies rolled out under President Trump. “Since the Administration’s implementation of Executive Orders to enforce immigration laws, apprehensions and inadmissible activity is trending toward the lowest monthly total in at least the last five years,” Kelly said in a statement. Then, in November, U.S. agents caught 7,018 families, an increase from 4,839 the month before, according to CBP. The number of apprehensions of unaccompanied children also increased.

The number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped at the start of the Trump presidency, but has since begun to creep up again, according to Customs and Border Protection figures. In March, the Department of Homeland Security reported a 40 percent decline in apprehensions from January to February. Indeed, it appeared the mood had shifted in Central America as Trump took office. In speaking with migrants, advocates, and workers at shelters in the U.S. and Mexico, The New York Times found that people were less likely to make the journey north.

In March, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly attributed the drop in border crossings to the new policies rolled out under President Trump. “Since the Administration’s implementation of Executive Orders to enforce immigration laws, apprehensions and inadmissible activity is trending toward the lowest monthly total in at least the last five years,” Kelly said in a statement. Then, in November, U.S. agents caught 7,018 families, an increase from 4,839 the month before, according to CBP. The number of apprehensions of unaccompanied children also increased.

Still, immigration restrictionists believe that fewer migrants would embark on the trip north if the administration were to implement the family separation policy. “The parents that would undertake this perilous journey to the United States would be less likely to do it if they knew they would be separated from their kids,” Andrew R. Arthur, a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports reduced immigration, told the Post.

Any change to U.S. immigration policy is likely to alter the flow of migrants to the country, though not always in the way that might be expected. In a 2016 article called “Why Border Enforcement Backfired,” Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, Jorge Durand of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica in Mexico City, and Karen Pren, the manager of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton’s Office of Population Research, found that increased border enforcement led undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. for a longer period of time.

“It’s clear that U.S. immigration policy has a pretty dramatic effect on the migration flow of immigrants either to encourage or discourage [migrants], sometimes in ways that weren’t anticipated,” said Tom Gjelten, the author of A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story.

The proposal to separate children from their parents also poses another set of challenges. The Department of Health and Human Services, which keeps undocumented children in shelters until they find a sponsor, is already overwhelmed—a problem that could be exacerbated if more children are sent to their shelters. And families, afraid to risk separation at the border, may be vulnerable to traffickers and smugglers.

The policy is not yet a done deal. The proposal has reportedly been approved by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has yet to sign off on it. At the very least, however, the measure falls in line with the administration’s approach to immigration: stoking fear among potential migrants to keep them from coming to the United States illegally.

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Still, immigration restrictionists believe that fewer migrants would embark on the trip north if the administration were to implement the family separation policy. “The parents that would undertake this perilous journey to the United States would be less likely to do it if they knew they would be separated from their kids,” Andrew R. Arthur, a resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports reduced immigration, told the Post.

Any change to U.S. immigration policy is likely to alter the flow of migrants to the country, though not always in the way that might be expected. In a 2016 article called “Why Border Enforcement Backfired,” Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, Jorge Durand of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica in Mexico City, and Karen Pren, the manager of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton’s Office of Population Research, found that increased border enforcement led undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. for a longer period of time.

“It’s clear that U.S. immigration policy has a pretty dramatic effect on the migration flow of immigrants either to encourage or discourage [migrants], sometimes in ways that weren’t anticipated,” said Tom Gjelten, the author of A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story.

The proposal to separate children from their parents also poses another set of challenges. The Department of Health and Human Services, which keeps undocumented children in shelters until they find a sponsor, is already overwhelmed—a problem that could be exacerbated if more children are sent to their shelters. And families, afraid to risk separation at the border, may be vulnerable to traffickers and smugglers.

The policy is not yet a done deal. The proposal has reportedly been approved by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has yet to sign off on it. At the very least, however, the measure falls in line with the administration’s approach to immigration: stoking fear among potential migrants to keep them from coming to the United States illegally.

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